Dispatches from Our Correspondents

NPR reporters Andrea Seabrook and Jeff Brady crisscrossed the nation, traveling from opposite coasts to meet up at Mount Rushmore, on a mission to explore how Americans relate to their government. They share their observations along the road:

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Aug. 12: Parting Thoughts

Jeff Brady and Andrea Seabrook in front of Mount Rushmore
Jeff and Andrea at Mount Rushmore.

From Jeff Brady: If some stranger came up to me on the street and asked me to talk about my relationship with government, I'd be flustered and probably spit out something stupid. But for the past two weeks, I've been that stranger, and the people I approached offered intelligent and often surprising responses.

Even a casino worker visiting Nevada for only one month from her home in the Republic of Moldova had a quick answer to this question. She said she was amazed how well the United States treats its disabled people. She reached this conclusion watching a person in a wheelchair board a city bus. Now, she wants to go back to her country and help change conditions for disabled people there.

I also was struck by the regional differences I encountered along my trip. This journey started for me in a big city — Portland, Ore. There, people on the streets talked a lot about politics — conservatives versus liberals — and about specific politicians. But as I traveled inland, to the rural areas of Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming, I noticed the answers changed to more pragmatic issues.

One woman said she just wants the government to provide good mental health care for her son, who's a soldier, when he returns from Iraq. A Republican business owner golfing in Wyoming said he hopes the local government will build a new treatment center for methamphetamine addicts so they can become productive people again.

I'm not sure why I experienced this difference. I do know that most of the news Americans receive comes from the coasts, and maybe folks who live there think more about the game of politics, while folks inland think more about how government affects their daily activities. I suspect that might be a good issue for a political scientist's research paper.

The variety of issues that came up during the trip also amazed me. From the young mom in Portland who's unhappy with the state of welfare programs, to the garbage hauler in South Dakota who says his trucks have problems with road weight limits — everyone has their own issues, and when you consider there are 280 million of us in this country, that's a complex web of needs that makes for an interesting discussion of our relationship with government.

From Andrea Seabrook: Everywhere I went, from South Carolina to South Dakota, I found Americans had surprising and eloquent answers to the question of, "What is your relationship to the government?" Whether it was the woman at a Tennessee yard sale who is losing her health care, or the Missouri cattle rancher who needs drought assistance, Americans' specific wants and needs dictate how they think about their government.

At NPR and other news networks, we often travel the country asking people about their political views, where they fall on that red-blue spectrum. And it was inspiring to find that when you ask about government instead, the answers can be profound and often apolitical. Americans don't really buy in to the "us-against-them" culture of modern politics as much as they might appear to if you judge only by news reports. — Andrea Seabrook

As NPR's congressional reporter, I cover Americans' representatives to the U.S. government every day in Washington, D.C. It was refreshing to turn around and interview the people those lawmakers represent. I found that though I often cover big issues such as the Iraq war or the energy bill, America is actually made up of a mosaic of smaller, more regionally rooted local issues. This can only help inform my reporting from Washington.

P.S. from Andrea and Jeff:

We'd like to thank two people who were very important in the production of this series. Ken Rudin was the lead editor and cheerleader for both of us on the road, and his commitment to the project made it easier to keep up a grueling travel schedule. Producer Muthoni Muturi traveled one week with Jeff and one with Andrea and provided valuable input along the way. Her wonderful sense of humor made a few long car trips a lot more fun, too!

Aug. 11: Rally of Road Rebels

Harleys cruising the streets of Sturgis, S.D.
Harleys cruise the streets of Sturgis, S.D.

When Andrea Seabrook and I were planning out this series, we though it'd be great to start on opposite coasts and then meet somewhere in the middle of the country. Mount Rushmore seemed like an obvious choice since our series was about Americans' relationship with their government.

At the time, we didn't know that more than half-a-million people also would be coming in from all over the country this week for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

The rally was originally started in 1938 by a fellow named Clarence "Pappy" Hoel, who owned an Indian Motorcycle franchise in town. Today, the rally is mostly a Harley-Davidson affair, even though the Indian Motorcycle Company is back in operation after a long absence in the post-World War II years.

As best I can tell, the rally has taken place every year since 1938, except in 1942, when there was war-time gas rationing. As the rally has aged, so have the attendees, apparently. Local doctors say they've seen an increase this year in age-related health problems — heart attacks, high blood pressure and diabetes — among those attending the rally.

Andrea and I walked around Sturgis, and let me say, you just haven't lived until you've experienced the feel of a few thousand deep-throated motorcycles on the road at the same time. Ignoring what must be off-the-chart pollution levels in town, the sheer feel of the vibrations that come through the ground — along with the noise — is exhilarating.

If the rally — and perhaps motorcycling in general — has a theme, it'd probably be "rebellion." Vendors offer stacks of black leather vests for sale and t-shirts with pictures of skeletons riding flaming motorcycles. One woman who appeared old enough to be a grandmother wore a red shirt that read on the back, "Snitches deserve Stitches."

I figured this would be as good a crowd as any to ask about their relationship with government… But not in Sturgis. It's so loud that ordering a blooming onion is difficult, let alone having a political discussion.

I talked with a few Harley riders outside Sanford's Grub and Pub in nearby Rapid City. Most of those who chatted with me said pretty much what we've been hearing all over the country — concerns about the war in Iraq, too much government regulation…

Then, I brought up helmet laws, and that's when these folks would let loose… Paul Ruthenberg of Farmington Hills, Mich. said, "I think it should be a choice. We don't have seatbelts on these things. If we fall off 'em, we're gonna die… The helmet thing — I just feel that they're trying to control what we do."

An interesting comment from a guy who makes his living as a government contractor. Ruthenberg owns a sanitation company. About local officials, Ruthenberg says most of them are just trying to do the right thing, though.

Maybe it was the feeling of independence you get after a long bike ride in the open air — or all that bad-boy black leather — that prompted him to say, " They're trying to control what we do." Or maybe it's just another example of the complicated relationship we all have with government. — Jeff Brady

Aug. 10, 2005: The Cowboy Way

While there aren't many cowboys left in the West — people who actually live on the range and herd cattle on horseback — the Cowboy Legend is clearly alive and well. This is especially true in Rock Springs, Wyo.

But the legend here has seen a few modifications. A rancher still wears a cowboy hat and boots, but probably only when he goes out for the evening. The horse likely spends more time in the barn or the corral than out on the range. A successful rancher gets around in a 4x4 diesel pickup with air conditioning and a radio dial that doesn't move from the country (or the news talk) station.

In fact, the cowboy of the 21st century in Wyoming may actually be working in the oil and gas business. That's what's fueling the Rock Springs economy these days.

Despite that, the hotel I checked into was called "The Outlaw Inn." In the evening, I sat down at the hotel's restaurant and found a menu that had beef cooked just about any way you might want it. But alongside the large slab of meat, you're as likely to find polenta as a baked potato.

One thing on the menu really caught my eye: Rocky Mountain Oysters. If you don't know what they are, I'll start by reminding you that near Wyoming there is no ocean where one might find oysters. Let's just say some poor, male calf had to give up a very personal part of his anatomy to make this dish possible.

The next day I set out to find workers from the gas fields to ask about their relationship with the government. They weren't easy to find, but it looked like the busiest place in town was traveling tool sale set up at the civic center. So I stood outside and stopped people walking by.

I found a few locals who were willing to talk, but the folks who I guessed were oil workers (the Texas and Oklahoma license plates were my biggest clue) pretty much ignored my interview requests. One burly guy replied to my request in a gruff voice, "No sir. I'm gonna go in here and look at tools. Then I'm fixin' to go drink some beer."

"Typical cowboy," I thought. But then I looked closer at his flatbed truck — it looked pretty clean. And the jeans he was wearing looked like they'd just been washed. Then there was his sunglasses — the lenses were tinted pink.

I guess that's today's cowboy. — Jeff Brady

Aug. 9: On the Reservation

Young dancers celebrate at a powwow held at the Fort Hall Reservation Aug. 4.
Dancers at the Aug. 4 Fort Hall powwow.

The Fort Hall Indian Reservation is a half-million acres of dusty, high-desert rangeland that, in large part, has been given over to irrigated agriculture. The reservation is north of Pocatello, Idaho, which was named for a Shoshone chief who led battles against European settlers. The land was "given" to the Bannock and Shoshone Tribes in the late 1800s. It was just a small part of the region the tribes claim they originally roamed (Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and Idaho).

Just after the turn of the century, the Lemhi-Shoshone Tribes were forced to join the Bannock and Shoshone. Their small reservation along the Idaho-Montana border was taken away, and they moved south to the Fort Hall Reservation.

The Lemhi-Shoshones claim one of the most famous Native-American women in history, Sacagawea, as one of their own. The Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara Nation in South Dakota also claims Sacagawea.

As Americans celebrate the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Sacagawea also is being celebrated for her work as a guide to the two men.

There's some dispute over how to spell her name — with a 'g' or a 'j' — and that's wrapped up in the issue of which tribe she belonged to. Historians seem to agree she was born Shoshone and then later sold several times to the other tribes — and possibly even given away as a gambling prize. The Lemhi-Shoshones tend to spell her name Sacajawea. I couldn't determine which is correct (not that she ever spelled her name in English), but I'm going with Sacagawea for the weak reasoning that that's what my spell checker accepts.

While visiting the Fort Hall Reservation, I met Rose Ann Abrahamson. She's a Lemhi-Shoshone educator and storyteller. Based on her examination of written and oral history, she says she's the great-great-great-grand niece of Sacagawea.

Within the Native-American community, some complain Sacagawea is well known only because she helped white people conquer the West. But Abrahamson sees Sacagawea as an independent and strong woman whom she's proud to claim as an ancestor.

The U.S. Mint immortalized Sacagawea on a one-dollar coin in 1999. Like the Susan B. Anthony dollar, the Sacagawea dollar doesn't seem to be in wide circulation. But when I walked into the Trading Post Grocery store (owned by the tribes), I was pleasantly surprised as the clerk handed me three Sacagawea coins as change.

I imagined this was a form of activism. Maybe the store had a policy of giving Sacagawea coins for change as a way of increasing their circulation. But it didn't occur to me to try to confirm this until I'd left the store. I was anxious to get to the car and tear into the buffalo jerky I'd bought (made by a company the tribes own).

I went back inside, but the clerk who'd given me the change was gone. I asked another if it was store policy to give Sacagawea coins in change. He said, "No. The other checker was probably just trying to get rid of them." — Jeff Brady

On the Web:

Aug. 8: Smoky Mountain Quilts

A view of the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee.
A view of the Smokey Mountains.

The Smoky Mountains in southeastern Tennessee are aptly named. The mountains themselves look like a line of watery blues, with a glittery, smoky sheen over them, lush and mysterious. I couldn't help but pull over and "set a while" as they say here, looking out over this peaceful place.

In the foothills of these beautiful mountains I found a little store, tucked along a lazy road. Holloway's Country Home is a quilting shop, bolts of cotton fabric line the store in tall shelves. At the center of the shop is a bed covered with some 50 quilts, all handmade by the wonderful women who run Holloway's.

Pauline Springer and Avalene Anderson
Pauline Springer and Avalene Anderson.

Pauline Springer wore a yellow shirt and blue-and-white striped bib overalls. Avalene Anderson had bronze eyes and a green patterned shirt. They both told me how quilts talk — somehow, with color and pattern, they manage to communicate a feeling, be it of home, or of waves of radiating color.

Pauline and Avalene also said many quilters fall in love with the feeling of the fabric in their hands, and with the community that develops as women work together, sewing tiny stitches.

Andrea Seabrook

Aug. 5: Jackpot Journal

 Devils Washbowl Gorge
The Devils Washbowl at Malad Gorge.

The drive from Boise to Jackpot, Nev., is long, rural and beautiful. This is a part of the country where everything is big — vast hills stretch on for miles, and so do the farms and ranches. NPR Producer Muthoni Muturi and I saw lots of cattle, horses, an elk ranch and acres of potato fields. We stopped near Glenn's Ferry, Idaho, to watch a small plane spray chemicals (presumably) on a field of plants that we, as city people, could not identify.

The terrain here holds some surprises, too. While cruising along another stretch of high desert prairie, we crossed a bridge and suddenly were over a steep canyon. We stopped and discovered for ourselves the Malad Gorge. There's a foot bridge across the gorge. Walk out to the middle and 250 feet below, you'll see the Malad River. It's a stunning sight.

Just down the freeway in Twin Falls, Idaho, the Snake River flows through a similar but wider gorge. There, people actually live and farm the land within the steep rock walls.

The town of Jackpot is located just across the Idaho border in Nevada. When gambling was outlawed in Idaho in the middle of the last century, Jackpot was born to satisfy the desire of Idahoans who didn't want to give up their "one-armed bandits."

In Jackpot, mobile homes appear to be the preferred shelter. In fact, the parks where the mobile homes are located are owned by the local casinos. It's like a modern-day version of the company town. Even the local grocery store is owned by a casino company.

Jackpot has some 1,300 residents, and that's just about how many employees the casinos in town require. So, the casinos are forced to bus workers in each day from Twin Falls — an hour or so away by car. The casinos also bring in workers from much farther away — Eastern Europe.

Stella Arteni
Moldova native Stella Arteni.

Muthoni and I stopped by the library looking for people to interview. Stella Arteni was checking her e-mail (the library is about the only place in town with good Internet access). Arteni is from Chisinau, Moldova. Moldova is a former Soviet Bloc country that is just slightly larger than Maryland.

She's studying economics at the state university in Chisinau, but she took the summer off to travel and work in the U.S. She's here with about 40 other young people from various countries — mostly Romania, Poland, Bulgaria and Macedonia. She says she works for a week and then travels for a few days. She's headed to Salt Lake City after Jackpot, and then she hopes to travel to one of the coasts and dip her hand in the ocean.

When we asked about her perceptions of the U.S. government, her answer surprised me. She said she was impressed with how this country treats the disabled. A few weeks earlier, she had been working in Laughlin, Nev., and was taking a city bus to work. She was amazed to see the bus was specially fitted to load wheelchair-bound passengers, and that the driver got out of the bus to help the person. And all this while everyone on the bus waited patiently…

In Moldova, Arteni says life is pretty much over for disabled people. No accommodations are made for travel or work, and she says the public has little patience for the extra time required for the disabled to get around.

Arteni summed up her perception of the U.S. by saying the government here seems to be truly concerned about its people and that because of that, life seems much easier than in her country.

It was amazing to hear these comments after spending a week listening to Americans talk about how their government doesn't pay attention to them, isn't looking out for their interests and is populated by crooks.

This trip is reminding me of a few important lessons — there's very little in the world that is black and white, and if you really engage people, you'll find they know a lot more about how the world works than you first suspected. — Jeff Brady

On the Web:

Aug. 4: Musings from Boise

Boise resident Charles Warren.
Boise resident Charles Warren.

I heard from listeners after the piece I filed from Portland. Boy, did I hear… Most of the comments were about the one conservative voice I found on the street near Pioneer Courthouse Square. Republican Teresa McIsaac said in the piece that she was generally satisfied with her government on the federal level.

Mary Czolgosz from Indianapolis responded wrote in response, "I cannot conceive of how that can be… That normal, everyday citizens could have such disparate basic assumptions that lead to such different perceptions of the government. How I wish I could sit down with that woman and ask her questions until I finally understood where she is coming from."

After Portland, I flew to Boise, Idaho. The rest of the trip I'll take by car, until I meet up with Andrea Seabrook at Mount Rushmore.

In Boise, I met Charles Warren — a warm fellow who just turned 79 years old. He's quite a talker!

"I am not a black person," says Warren. "I'm a dark-brown-skinned person… I'm not African American. I'm an American citizen."

Warren doesn't like categories much, but he sure likes relaying some of the things he's learned in life. If you'd like to hear a selection from my audio interview with Warren, check out the link at the top of this diary entry.

Warren was born in Tennessee, but has lived in the West most of his life — the last 47 years in Boise. Whatever you know about Idaho, you probably have heard that it's not the most diverse place on the planet.

Census data (from 2000) show there are about 1,500 people in Boise who identify as Black or African American. With a total population of 185,000, that means about 0.8 percent of the population is black. The same data show the city is 92 percent white.

Warren recently attended a political event for veterans, and noticed he was the only black person in attendance. "I think I might have been the only fly in the buttermilk," said Warren. From that, you might conclude Boise is a difficult place to be a "dark-brown-skinned" man.

But Warren says that's not so: "These are great people — this is a great community." Warren says he's never run into any problems here, not even when it comes to voting. But he's aware that people in other parts of the country — especially the South — have had problems.

Warren remembers his parents telling him about poll taxes and various other schemes to keep blacks away from the polls. And he remembers the news stories about voting rights activists murdered in Mississippi, which eventually led to the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Because other blacks had difficulty voting, Warren says he's always taken that right very seriously. It upsets him that so many other people in the country don't vote.

Warren's politics seem not to be a simple case of liberal versus conservative. He says he's an independent. There's an Al Gore bumper sticker on the Cadillac in his driveway. But he also listens to Michael Savage on the radio. Savage's Web site screams, "SHOW THESE PHOTOS TO YOUR LIBERAL FRIENDS!"

Of his government, Warren says he values integrity above everything else. And when he sees a political figure with integrity, he knows it. — Jeff Brady

Aug. 1 Greetings from Portland

Jeff Brady in Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square.
Jeff Brady in Pioneer Courthouse Square.

Pioneer Courthouse Square has come a long way since shoemaker Elijah Hill bought it in 1849 for $24 and a pair of boots. Before the redbrick amphitheater-style square became Portland's "Living Room," it was a school, then a hotel and then a parking lot.

The city acquired the block from local department store chain Meier and Frank (now a child of parent May Department Stores) in 1979. Pioneer Courthouse Square was dedicated in 1984 and named for the historic federal courthouse across the street.

Today, it's a great place for a reporter to go if he wants to find out what people in Portland are talking about. Around 21,000 people pass through the square each day, so you're bound to find some pretty interesting opinions. I stopped by after a workday to ask folks about their relationship with their government.

In just a few minutes, I met several locals, ran across someone I used to interview regularly when I was a reporter for Oregon Public Broadcasting, talked with a woman from Massachusetts, watched a blues band conduct a pre-performance warm-up and chatted with a nice couple from Windsor, Ontario. Colleen McDonald reminded me (out of habit from having to tell every American, it seemed) that Windsor is located right across the border from Detroit, Mich.

Whenever I come across Canadians, I always want to chat with them. I don't remember learning anything about Canada in school, and we certainly don't hear much about our northern neighbor in the news.

So, I posed the question to McDonald that I've been asking all the Americans I run across on this trip through the Western U.S. What's your relationship with the U.S. government?

"Well, I think this government is very aggressive," McDonald said. "And it's been difficult to have a good relationship with them. Canada is like the little sister, I think. They want that protection only when they want that protection. And it's hard to live in the shadow of the United States. But, you know, we're good neighbors. But sometimes we have family squabbles. And I think we're in that period right now."

There was a blues concert going on at the time. There are seven free blues concerts scheduled in the square over the summer. There's also free music during the lunch hour some days.

Pioneer Courthouse Square is just a great place to hang out. In today's real estate market, the block is probably worth a lot of money. But it's nice to know that, as a community, we can still set aside public spaces like this — a living room — where we can go a meet a few people with whom we might never connect otherwise. — Jeff Brady

On the Web:

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